JCC Uses Zoom to Engage Youth


It’s been more than five months since Ben Pillersdorf has reported to work at the Cineplex movie theatre in Toronto’s Fairview Mall.

His job, directing moviegoers to the right theatre, was put on hold with the onset of the COVID pandemic. To date, this Cineplex has not reopened.

Pillersdorf, 26, says he misses work, but he is staying busy. On week-day afternoons, he participates in Summer Fun Intensive!, a two-hour, online program for youth with developmental disabilities run through the Miles Nadal JCC.

Ben Pillersdorf
Ben Pillersdorf

“We do different drama games, we do arts, we listen to music while we dance, and we do yoga,” he said.

Before the pandemic, Pillersdorf attended Every Day Friends Social Network at the MNJCC, a social and cultural program geared to young adults with intellectual and physical disabilities.

Many of the Every-Day-Friends participants have joined Summer Fun Intensive and have remained connected through online programming, said Liviya Mendelsohn, director of inclusion at the MNJCC.

“We have had a robust social network for people 18 to 35,” said Mendelsohn. “The MNJCC has for many years been a hub for inclusive programming that has been welcoming and encouraging to people of all abilities to be together based around their interests.”

Mendelsohn said that in March, COVID put all programming at the JCC on hold, so it was important to make sure that the participants in Every Day Friends could connect online.

Through funding from the Azrieli Foundation, there were training opportunities for them to learn to use Zoom. “People were given individual coaching by the IT department and everyone was online within a week.”

Mendelsohn said Summer Fun Intensive covers eight weeks of online programming – 10 hours a week for 25 participants. “It’s full every week.”

The program was made possible through support from the Green-Wagner Family Trust and the Azrieli Foundation.

In addition to Summer Fun Intensive, the MNJCC has received government funding for two online courses: filmmaking and photography, programs that have been running since mid-June. The filmmakers work with 25 youth who use camera phones to document their experiences during COVID.

“They want to make the wider community more aware of what people with disabilities have been through,” Mendelsohn said. “It’s really been hard.”

She pointed out that many of them had part-time or volunteer jobs, and/or community supports that have been temporarily suspended during the pandemic.

The online programs have given participants some structure to their day. “We have become the anchor to people who had [previously] had routines and jobs.”

Cathy Mallove, the mother of a participant in Summer Fun Intensive, described the online programming as “welcoming and vibrant.

“It’s an extension of the way the MNJCC operates. They’re giving people the socialization and community.”

Her daughter, Rebecca Geffen, 25, said she enjoys the online programs, particularly Civics, Improv Games with Becky, and Yoga with Karmit.

Rebecca Geffen

“Before COVID, I did Every Day Friends at the JCC,” Geffen said. “Now I do the program on Zoom every day. I love Zoom.”

“The JCC has done a lot for these kids,” said Mallove, noting that once people with disabilities reach the age of 21, there are fewer programs for them. “The JCC is a wonderful place. They think about this community and they keep this community engaged.”